Saturday, November 1, 2014

One day to get it right

My daughter, El, is almost 15 months old.  Since she was born, my husband and I rarely embark on family field trips.  Our family time is typically spent on the home front.  However, the couple of times we organized a family outing, there was an underlying sense of urgency to have a tremendous amount of fun.  One-day only events seem to carry their own unique stressors. 

Why? Well...

  1. We paid a significant amount of money to be there and share a unique experience so it better damn well be magical!  
  2. If the outing doesn't go smoothly then we may never leave the house again.
  3. Where are the bathrooms? Where do we park? Where's a map?  Where are do we eat? 
  4.  It's too easy to tune into the anxiety of other stressed-out parents and then silently judge them. 

It was the weekend of my birthday and a perfect autumn day.  I requested that we visit a local arboretum. I have visited the arboretum pre-baby and remembered the Children's Garden.  I imagined El crawling around the paths, climbing the stone stairs, splashing in water and freely exploring in nature as we observed with delight.  

After navigating the first stressor (see #3), we found the cafe, waited in a too-long of line for food, discovered that the tables with the perfect views were taken and then settled for just a nice view instead. 

We then headed straight for the Children's Garden.  El leaned over to be let down.  She began to crawl around near the entrance. People were filtering in, saying "Hi" to El and making comments like, "Watch out for that baby!"  We moved her to another location. The same thing happened. A parent said just loud enough for us to hear, "Someone is going to step on that baby."  

Determined to defy the norm and make this world a more baby-conscience place, I allowed her to continue to crawl wherever she pleased as I hovered closely over her for protection. My husband trailed behind grumbling about the crowds.  

Are we having fun yet? 

As I was being judged by other parents for allowing El to crawl around in precarious conditions, my inner critic was alive and well as I noticed parents pulling their children from one feature to another, downgrading their interests, and threatening them if they disobeyed. (See # 1, and #4). 

We were all a bunch of parents trying so hard to do it right and somehow getting it all wrong.  

My husband finally convinced me to leave the Children's Garden to sit under some trees.  I thought, while we were here, I'd capture some shots of El playing in nature.  As I got into position to shoot, my husband lifted her up onto his lap for a snack.  I crtictized, "I was just about to take a picture of her playing in nature!"  Then it dawned on me.  I had our experience mapped out before we even arrived.   

Outside of the bustling Children's Garden, we relaxed and noticed a stunning yellow tree. We decided to sit under it.  El began passing yellow leaves back and forth and tearing them into tiny, glowing pieces. Every so often she'd throw her head and both arms upwards.   

My husband picked her up so she could reach into the yellow mass of leaves and branches.  Her eyes bright and mouth grinning, all because of an up close encounter with an autumn tree.  

When I stopped chasing the illusive idyllic day in search of happiness, I looked to my family. And without fail, they helped me understand that the perfect day, is any day that we share together.   

Check out this great resource...

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Cure for Monkey Brain

I started a new part-time job that consumes the majority of my free time.  It's only twelve hours a week, but that doesn't cease to fill me with guilt that El, my 13 month-old daughter's routine is disrupted and my brain occasionally hijacked.  Three days a week I am onsite.  On those three days, she doesn't nap in her bed and has to eat breakfast in the car when she would normally be home playing in her pajamas.   

And because I do some work from home,  it's not uncommon for my mind to stray from the present and jump from task to task. I constantly pull myself out of the trenches of LaLa Work Land as soon as I realize that's where I've set up camp. 

I openly admit, I compromised her comfort for my own personal reasons for taking on a job.   

And the reality is, on those three days, it is more about me than it is about her.  

I'm pretty sure that's the definition of Mommy Guilt

However, despite the additional influx of chaos and distraction I have welcomed into our lives, if there is one thing we can count on, it's bath time.

Not my bath time, but El's bath time.  Every evening, after dinner, I slip her into her tub, add some bubbles, hand her a bath tub book and turn on some music.  She smiles, I smile back as we both indulge in the comfort of our bath time ritual.   For at least 20minutes, we have nowhere to go and nowhere to be.  

As she physically cleanses, I mentally cleanse.  Breakfast, lunch and dinner rinses off her skin.  The dirt on her knees and on the tops of her feet wash away.  Tear stains from bumping her head, now gone. When my mind drifts, her splashes bring me back to her. 

I make sure I play too.  Hands immersed in water, putting caps (our tried and true toy) on our heads, and planting bubbles on our noses. The ending of one song prompts her to dance until the next one begins.  Sometimes I sing, and sometimes she sings too.  

After bath, I wrap her in a towel and I hold her cheek to cheek. When she sees her reflection in the bathroom mirror she always yells with her mouth opened-wide, two front teeth exposed and grinning in delight. 


The power of simple care routines and rituals cannot be underestimated. They are reliable anchors in any chaotic day and are a cure for even the worst monkey brain. Whether it is a diaper change, bath, nursing, or lunch time, they draw me out of my cave, and refocus my attention on providing care for my daughter, the most meaningful work of all.  

More on mindful care routines here:


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Part II: Chasing After Milestones

I feel compelled to follow-up on my last blog post, which focused on El's natural gross motor development prior to her first birthday.  
I supported El's development by observing and giving her ample floor time for unrestricted movement and play.  As her first birthday quickly approached, she was not crawling or mobilizing forward.  It wasn't easy as a parent to idly sit back and watch her development naturally unfold, oh-so-slowly.  

I was frustrated with the time it was taking, and then frustrated with myself for my impatience. 

I mustered up what discipline I had and stayed true to my beliefs. I did not buy equipment that claimed to strengthen and teach babies to move, I did not prop her into the crawling position (Okay, I did it one time!), and I did not crawl around the floor to show her how it's done. 

I knew what she was working on was important, necessary and not always visible to the adult eye.

The day after Eleanor's first birthday, she began crawling.  Not the butt scoot backwards, or pulling herself in circles on her belly crawl, but good old-fashioned forward crawling.  

Now she crawls everywhere, loudly slapping her hands on the ground like a playful puppy.  She surprises me by magically appearing in the kitchen. She crawls back and forth between her Dada and I searching for belly buttons. And today, she made her way down the sidewalk and took a left, as if to say, "Hello world! Here I come."  A neighbor commented... 

"she seems so confident."

I recently read Teacher Tom's blogpost Falling Behind.  In a nutshell, he discussed the idea of how young children are often labeled behind, or on the opposite side of the spectrum, advanced, when in fact they are developing at their own individualized and perfect pace. 

Not long ago, I felt like El was falling behind and left in the dust of her toddling, crawling, climbing peers and now I can never go back to her pre-crawling days. I already feel nostalgia for the times when she was content laying on her back so she could hold books with her feet, and flip through the pages.  There were surely moments that slipped through the cracks because I focused on what came next. 

Even though this milestone can be officially checked off the list, I trust that El will forever challenge me to trust her as she moves through life.  It is her journey and I'm thankful to be along for the ride as we continue to find joy and meaning in every chapter we experience together. 

Previous related posts

Meet that Milestone Today

The Benefits of Allowing Your Baby to Struggle

Practice What You Promise


Concepts and Practices of the Pikler Approach

Don't Stand Me Up; Janet Lansbury

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Chasing After Milestones

I am very much a mover.  With a background in both dance and early childhood development, I have written and presented workshops advocating for authentic movement experiences for infants and toddlers.  After having my daughter El, I was (and still am) excited to watch her gross motor development naturally unfold. 

But in all honesty, I wish it would unfold a little faster. 

In previous blog posts I've discussed, disclosed and processed my internal impatience with El's gross motor development.  At first it was the 'rolling over' milestone that made me nervous, now a week shy of turning the big 1, El is not crawling, pulling up to stand, and avoids putting weight on her legs.  

I am continually challenged to TRUST that she knows what she's doing.  So far, her process has proven to be nothing short of fascinating and it gets her there eventually. 

However, what still surprises me is the undercurrent of anticipation, anxiety and the twinge of isolation that accompanies not being 
perched on top of the developmental bell curve.  

When I openly acknowledge that I struggle to be confident in El's gross motor development, I am met with the response, "Every child is different! You can't compare!"  
Unfortunately, it is human nature to compare and categorize.  I can't help but notice that at the park I am the only parent in our playgroup that still totes a blanket for El and I to camp out on.  As the other parents chase after their little movers, we are stationary like content little Buddhas. 

And then the overcompensation seeps in.  Last week I observed El as she stacked blocks. I Googled, "How old are children when they begin to stack blocks."  Baby Center said,  "18months."  

18 months!  

My baby is advanced at block stacking!  

That's why she's not crawling! She's too busy becoming a block stacking prodigy!

"Earlier is not better," said infant specialist Magda Gerber, but regrettably and with much guilt I admit, as a parent, earlier feels better. 

Despite my inner conflicts and insecurities, I remain committed to supporting El's natural gross motor development. 

When it comes to parenting, what I feel and what I know are often at odds.  But luckily, my brain routinely reminds my heart that her process is perfect and always will be.  

I'll someday reflect on our early days together and become overwhelmed with wonder and disbelief that El was once a small baby who loved nothing more than to cuddle on my lap, flip through book after book, and watch the world go by on a blanket in the front yard.  

Be sure to check out..

 Related posts 

The Benefits of Allowing Your Baby to Struggle

Practice What you Promise

Resources on natural gross motor development

Sitting Babies Up, the Down Side; Janet Lansbury 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Smile for the Stranger

I always feel uncomfortable when parents ask their children to smile, sing or dance for me.  The child RARELY complies and quickly retreats.  If I see that they are uncomfortable and the pressure doesn't stop, I say, "You don't have to sing that song, I don't mind." 

Pressuring or requesting children to perform for the approval of others is one way that babies and young children are objectified. 

When my daughter, El, was only three-months-old, we went to visit a friend. Before I knew what was happening I said, "Can you smile for Julie?"  I needed her to witness how incredible my smiling baby was!  When El did not smile, she replied, "It's okay, I saw her smile already."  

Guilty as charged. 

When she began doing this adorable head-swaying-dancey-bob- thing, I found myself singing crazily, trying to get her to dance for our guests and family.  I commanded her to shake shake shake and clap clap clap to encourage her to show-off all the fun things she does in the comfort of her own home.  It was as if I was trying to sell her.

The desire for other people to see my daughter as likable and charming is stronger than I could ever imagine. 

When El encounters casual acquaintances or new people, her instinct isn't to smile and engage, but to stare with a neutral expression or even sport a frown for extended periods of time. 

She contemplates and assesses the situation through intense observation.  She hardly moves.  If she anticipates that her personal space is about to be invaded, she spontaneously breaks down in tears. Her first impression won't win any adoring fans.

However, by releasing the pressure to seek approval and please an audience,  the risk of future anxieties, personal insecurities and feelings of inadequacy may be lessened.   

Through continual reflection, I am working on letting go of the expectations I put on my daughter during social encounters.  Her suspicious, observant tendencies are a part of her, and worth getting to know, just as much as her smiley, playful side.  

Instead of pressuring, prompting and acting like a nut to get her to perform, I now strive to support authentic and responsive interactions with family, friends and acquaintances, so that El is empowered to open-up on her own terms and choose who she invites into her world.  

Related Resources:

The Approval Trap

Raising Less Stressed Kids; Janet Lansbury 

5 Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job;" Alfie Kohn


Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Father's Day Letter to Eleanor

Dear Eleanor,

At the time this letter was written you are 10 months old.  You're father's first Father's Day is finally here.  I witnessed demonstrations of his love for you the second you were born.  He rushed out of the room to be by your side while the doctors made sure you were okay and requested lotion for your newborn feet because he thought they looked dry.  

From that day forward, I've witnessed moments so tender and sincere, I don't want them to get lost as years go by, 

I want them to belong to you.

During your first week at home, you woke often in the night. Together, your father and I, changed your diaper.  As I prepared to nurse he held you close and rocked back and forth.  He whispered, 

"Oh my god, she's just so precious."  

Every night during those early weeks he said those exact words, at Midnight, 2am and again at 4am.

When he went back to working 12 to 16 hour days, he came home exhausted, but without hesitation, happily swept you up, tucked you snuggly in the moby wrap and walked around the block to lull you to sleep.

If you were already in bed after he returned home,  he would tell me, "if she wakes up crying, I get to go in."  One night you woke up in the middle of his dinner.  He jumped up so quickly, soup spilled all over the floor.  In a pseudo-panic, he looked at me, then at the soup and back at me.  I said, "Well, go in!"  He ran into your bedroom just to get a chance to hold and comfort you for a few moments.

And there's more...

Your father can't even open the book, "On the Night You Were Born" without crying, let alone read it to you.

One afternoon, he carried up your clean clothes from the downstairs laundry room.  While hugging your laundry, he paused and said, "I even love holding her clothes."

The best part is, the feelings are mutual.  You look around for him in the morning,  flash him an open-mouthed grin whenever you get a chance, squeal and kick your legs when he plays the banjo, and share a special head bobbing dance.    

Because of your father's ability to confidently and warmly care for you, as the years go by, your relationship with your father will be filled with moments as heartfelt as these. I feel so blessed to  witness the special bond I see nurtured everyday and  I hope this note will forever serve as a reminder of how much you are loved.

With Love, Your Mama

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Testing Mom

I flipped over a newsletter I received from a popular Chicago parents organization.  On the back, was a full page advertisement with the headline;  

"Are you smarter than a 4-year-old?"  

Below were two multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble questions with the tag line; 

"These are the types of questions your child will face on a Chicago Public School test."

Luckily the advertisement offers relief!, contains 100 FREE questions so that anxiety ridden, well-meaning parents can, 

"Prepare your child for all of life's tests."

However, the Testing Mom mentality comes with a long list of sacrifices to children's overall health; socially, emotionally and cognitively, in addition to damaging relationships with their caregivers.  Therefore, like cigarettes and other products that are required to display warning labels, this website should not be exempt.  By pressuring children to prepare for future and mind numbing worksheets, children suffer the following consequences. 

1. Interrupted or deficit of play 
There is SCIENTIFIC evidence that play is the BEST way for children to learn and is CRITICAL for healthy development.  As children attempt to extract information through the free exploration of materials, meaningful play comes to an abrupt halt when a series of adult driven interrogations and demands are dispensed.   

Count the blocks! Name the shape! 
What does a pig say? What letter is this?

Luckily, infant specialist Magda Gerber, has offered this pearl of wisdom, 

"Be careful what you teach, it might interfere with what they are learning."

2. Conditioned self-worth:
If the child gets the answer right, an enthusiastic, "Good job! You're right!"  typically follows. If the child gets the answer wrong, they are quickly corrected and tested again.  Furthermore, through my experience, the pressure to perform increases when there is an audience.  

The result of the testing/correcting/testing again does not predict or promote academic advancement, but instead it ensures that the child is conditioned to define his success and self-worth by seeking out the 'right' answer for positive external validation. 

3. Wasted time:
Sometimes it is to my delight that a child answers the test question completely out of the ball park.  At a preschool I once observed at (children were ages 2-3), the teacher believed that the children were ready to memorize the months of the year.  During circle time, she overheard one child say the correct month when quizzed. She singled her out and asked her to repeat the answer louder for the class. 

Teacher: "Jessie, what month is it!?"  

Jessie: "PURPLE!"  

Why did Jessie respond with the answer purple?  It's because Jessie, at the age of two, has more important things to do with her time than to memorize the months of the year.  See #1

4. Closed questions = Closed minds:
Closed ended questions stunt conversation and cramp critical thinking skills.  Open-ended statements and questions such as, 

  • What do you think? 
  • What happens if...?
  • Tell me about...

encourages young children to think deeply about their experiences and gives them an opportunity to express their unique perspective. When adults objectively listen with curiosity, children's thoughts and ideas are respected, validated and unveiled. 

5. Induced childhood amnesia:
While frantically taking advantage of all those TEACHABLE MOMENTS and opportunities to quiz and test, play memories of our own childhood are forgotten. These memories serve as a powerful reminder of the magic we experienced as young children.  

Now, remember favorite moments of your own childhood.  Take some time to relive favorite activities. Stick your fingers in paint, squish some play dough or feel the grass beneath your feet.  Rediscover and delight in the health benefits of idle time.  Oh, and burn those test questions.  

To avoid the harmful side-effects of the Testing Mom mentality, prepare children for life and unleash their potential, by fiercely protecting their right to a childhood. Have real conversations, real experiences and ask questions that matter to rediscover an innate sense of wonder and love of learning that is anything but standard.  


The Value of Unstructured Play Time for Kids

Time Goes By So Fast: Play Makes Meaningful Memorie

A Scholarly Response to ‘Tiger Mom’: Happiness Matters, Too

Alliance for Childhood

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Softer Side of Toddlers

Observing a toddler interact with a baby can be nerve racking. 
As a former playgroup facilitator for babies and toddlers, it was not unusual to hear well-intentioned parents issue warnings before their toddler had the opportunity to engage.

"Be gentle! Be nice!  Don't Touch!"

However, by avoiding premeditated and often imagined catastrophes, children are prevented from exploring relationships and building friendships.  

As young as three months, El adored her toddler friends.  At nine months she still watches them closely as they scurry around the room, always returning to squat down and study her. They present toys to her as if they were gifts without any incentive or directive to share.  And when toys are taken (if they can pry them from her tough little fingers), they are often replaced with another one. 

They stroke her head as she nurses, pat her tummy as she plays and occasionally she receives a gentle hug. What her older friends know about caregiving is illuminated when they engage with my daughter.  

Therefore, to help ease my parental anxieties when facilitating play amongst babies and toddlers, I keep these tips in mind. 

Consider proximity: Sit close enough to intervene but far back enough to provide a sense of comfort and autonomy. 

Narrate (aka sportscasting):  Help both children tune into their environment, their actions and each other, by objectively narrating their play as it unfolds. 

Listen: Provide moments of silence to allow the children to take the lead in communications. 

TRUST:  Refrain from the knee-jerk response to prematurely intervene. Unless it's an immediate safety concern, wait, wait and then wait some more.                                                                                             

I'm not claiming that baby and toddler social interactions are void of conflict and clumsiness.  However, despite the need to occasionally block a poke in the eye or a swat at the nose, the majority of interactions I have witnessed negate the stereotypical egocentric toddler and the fragile baby.  

By learning to control the impulse of always being on high alert, and providing the freedom to play despite developmental differences, I have witnessed children's amazing capacity for empathy, curiosity and the sophisticated ability to communicate through gestures, vocalizations and touch.

Related Topics:


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Babies Gone Wild

My baby is screaming and thrashing about during a diaper change. The snot sucker is her worst enemy.  The bath to changing table transition can be far from pleasant.  Wiping her face and hands provokes a burst of complaints. 

I resist the instinctive urge to....

distract her and go super duper fast!

When our children's feelings are intense or they are exercising their right to protest, it's natural to look for strategies that abolish the behavior once and for all.  Parents often ask, "How do I FIX this!" However, when I stopped looking for a...
  • quick fix  
  • method to follow
  • or 100% success rate 
I freed myself from the burden of finding the ultimate solution and eradicating uncomfortable feelings.   

When this topic arises amongst peers, I think of Lisa Sunbury's post, Holding her Through her Tears.  She discusses the idea of keeping the calm space when your child cannot.  

My daughter was in the midst of protesting her pre-nap diaper change. her face scrunched up, legs kicking and tears streaming as she yelled. I remembered Lisa's words and kept the calm space by slowing down.  

My husband who was watching with concern said, "Can you hurry it up a bit!?"  

Every time she screamed, I took a deep breath and continued, slow and steady.  I acknowledged her feelings, talked her through next steps and within minutes, that felt like hours, she calmed.  I continued to get her dressed as she babbled and cooed as if nothing ever happened. When the diaper change was complete, I gave her a gentle squeeze and let out one last sigh.  

However, I will not always have a soothed and babbling baby by slowing down when her feelings are intense. The only guarantee is that by keeping the calm, my daughter knows that I can handle her big feelings and keep her safe when she's disorganized.  

I don't need to fix her feelings, I just need to be her rock. 

For additional tips on how to help your child through difficult care routines check out...
Janet Lansbury; Diaper Change Disaster 

A lovely post about slowing down with toddlers...
Peaceful Parenting

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Life Lessons Learned Through Art; The perks of being raised by an artist.

My mother loves to tell the story about the time she discovered me painting.  I was two years old and found my way to a canvas she had been working on.  I grabbed the red paint and added a few special touches.  When she discovered what I had done to her artwork, I looked at her proudly and said, "I PAINTED!"  
She responded with a smile, "Yes you did."

When my sister and I were older, she began to teach art classes in the basement of our house.  It was during these basement art classes (whether she was aware of it or not), that she taught me three invaluable life lessons that have shaped and enhanced my life. 

1.  Make your mistakes work for you. 

I remember the day she handed all of her students sharpie markers.  She instructed, "We are using sharpies today because you cannot erase.  If you make a mistake, you'll need to figure out how to make it work." I realize now, this was an exercise in perseverance.  The marks made in the past are permanent, so make new marks, change paths and turn mistakes into something meaningful and useful in the best way possible. 

2.  See below the surface.

My mother set up a still-life that included a candle with a lit flame. She told us, "Do not look at the candle and see a candle. Do not draw a candle.  Instead, look at the lines and shapes that create the candle.  Notice the circle of light that the candle is casting, and the triangular shape of the negative space?"  This lesson taught me to see through the eyes of curiosity.  To take note of the dramatic swoop of a tree trunk, the way the sun gives everything a golden glow at dusk, and the perfect curl of my daughter's eyelashes.  Because of her, I don't miss out on the beauty, quirk, and uniqueness of the lines, shapes and shadows that make up our world. 

3.   Do it for the joy that it brings.

I entered a scarecrow making contest for a 4-H fair.  My mother helped me create a lopsided, wild eyed scarecrow in roller skates and a hot pink boa.  Every time we looked at our scarecrow, we began to laugh.  This scarecrow was sure to win first place!  I received a red ribbon (not blue) due to it not meeting the quality scarecrow-making criteria.  But it didn't phase us a bit.  We loved standing back and observing county fair visitors as they pointed and chuckled at our creation. Next year, I entered the contest again, and like last year our weird imperfect scarecrow brought us joy and delight, and like last year, I did not receive a best-in-show.

Because my mother nurtured the artist in me, her art classes in the basement taught me to persevere,  wonder in the ordinary, and make joy a priority.  

And for that, I am forever grateful.  

To the most whimsical, kind and generous artist I know...

Happy Mother's Day. 

You can find my mother's artwork at Susan Miller Art

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Unqantifiable Benefits of Play

With the push for early academic success and the epidemic of developmentally inappropriate practices in today's schools, play is cut out of children's lives. Instruction time is added in place of recess for drilling, cramming, and memorizing so that a test can be passed, an award can be won, and a teacher can keep her job.  

"We have to get the children ready for (insert future grade level here_____)" is a phrase I hear too often in the field of education. In result, childhood's gift of living in the present is seized by the stress of living in the future. 

In an attempt to validate play and justify it's presence in the lives of children, we, as play advocates, are called to dissect and quantify to prove to parents, educators and politicians that it will ensure academic success. The message is clear, if it doesn't expedite emerging math, science and literacy skills, it's too risky to pursue. So, in the meantime the essence of play becomes lost in a sea of preschool, kindergarten, and college readiness.

YES, children learn math, science, and literacy skills best through play, but more importantly, the real magic of play is about educating the heart

Play educates the heart by...
  • providing an outlet for emotional release and understanding. 
  • allowing children to imagine the perspective of others (just a little thing called EMPATHY).
  • building community.
  • creating feelings of joy (we want our children to be happy right?)

It is my dream, that one day, nurturing the human spirit and educating the heart becomes a core priority in our schools. 

When I watch my daughter play,  I'm not worried if the time spent playing will ensure that she counts by preschool or reads in Kindergarten. But instead, I trust that play is doing more important work by helping her become a resilient, loving, and joyful person, thus opening her mind, body and soul for a deeper kind of learning. Learning so deep, it exists on a cellular level and refuses to be quantified.  

We are never more 
fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything than when we are playing."

-Charles Schafer

More on this topic...

The New Deficiency Formally Known as Childhood

Want to get your kids into college?  Let them play.

Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School

Friday, April 25, 2014

Free Play: Creating low-cost play environments for babies and toddlers

Originally published in NPN/Neighborhood Parents Network's newsletter Parent to Parent, Vol. 34, No. 2, 2014.

With the help of Pinterest, fanciful playrooms for young children across America have taken center stage.  However, through my education and work, I’ve learned that I don’t need to have the perfect color scheme or designer furniture to create an inspiring place to play!  I’ve found that these simple steps are all that it takes to create a safe and engaging space that any child can freely explore, without spending a dime.

Materials: Score!  I already have the perfect play materials in my house!   Children love exploring real life, everyday materials.  I may find a Tupperware lid boring, but my baby can’t wait to get her hands on it.  When scavenging for materials, SAFETY FIRST.

I discovered that these household items are perfect for play!

   Lids (pan, pasta and salsa lids are shiny!) - Measuring spoons and cups - coffee canisters - tea towels - plastic soda bottles - bowls - wooden spoons - muffin tins - silicon cupcake liners – tupperware containers.   

Tip:  I like to collect and display items in multiples to add an extra ‘wow’ factor.

Get Organized:
Since I don’t keep all my belongings in one box, why would I expect my baby to?  Little ones need an organized space so that they can get to work without feeling overwhelmed.  Instead of a toy chest, I prefer open shelving that neatly displays materials.  I enjoy organizing the materials by shape, color, or type in fun baskets or containers.  Everyday objects always look more intriguing in a pretty container so am I frequently scouring area thrift stores. 

I know that babies and toddlers like to put stuff in and out of other stuff, so I pair materials with this in mind.  Here are some examples:

  • Muffin tins and rocks
  • Coffee canisters and balls
  • Plastic soda bottles and popsicle sticks.

Less is more!  I frequently rotate materials to keep my play areas fresh and uncluttered.  Children focus better when there are less options and an open floor space. 

Use ordinary objects in extraordinary ways:
The toddlers I’ve worked with love little surprises.  For example, hanging wind chimes in arms reach.  Other fun tricks that inspire play are adding colored water or rice to a soda bottle (secure the lid) or stuffing scarves in an empty Kleenex box. It’s fun to tap into my inner baby and see objects for the first time.  The possibilities for play are truly endless.

Make it a YES environment:
Since I don’t want children playing in the potting soil, I cover the base with cardboard.  If I don’t want something to go in the mouth, it doesn’t belong in the play space.  Get the idea?

I love that I don’t need a large space or big budget for play.  By following these simple steps, I am able to sit back and enjoy observing my baby as she brings the materials and environment to life!

Creative Toys to Engage Babies; Janet Lansbury

Simple Toys Make Things Happen; Nicole Vigliotti

Monday, April 21, 2014

Want Nothing and Gain Everything

I'm lying on the floor next to my 8-month daughter El, wanting nothing.  She's not propped to sit or stand, she's just lying on her back, assessing her environment.  I resist the urge to wave a book around, sing a song or roll a ball to grab her attention. Instead, I quietly watch.  

El picks up a metal bowl and taps her fingernails against it.  From past observations, I've learned she begins most explorations by taptap-tapping.  

She looks at me and smiles. I return the smile and say, "I hear the noise you're making." 

Magda Gerber would describe this scenario as Wants Nothing time. I learned about Wants Nothing time after reading her book, Your Self-Confident Baby

As a mother and early childhood educator, Wants Nothing time is an important, challenging and exciting part of my practice. By being fully present in mindful observation, I tune into my distractions and quiet the desire to sneak off and check social media for the umpteenth time to be with my daughter, without judgement or agenda.  

During this time, I put on baby goggles and see the wonder in the ordinary objects my child brings to life.  One afternoon, I observed El exploring a wax paper bag I had rinsed out and given to her for play.  I was delighted by the sunlight streaming in through the window, illuminating the water droplets and causing the bag to glow as she waved it around, crinkled it up, and held it close to her face to study. 

As I become proficient at just being, I realize how much is demanded from babies on a day-to-day basis from well-meaning adults who desire to engage and interact.
Grab the toy!  
Smile smile smile!  
 Clap your hands!

When babies become more verbal the quizzing starts...

What does a sheep say?  
What color is this?    
What letter is this?  

To truly know a child, habitual distractions and agendas need to be recognized and dissolved. 



In Magda's Words:

Wants Nothing time is a free flowing space in which the child does not have to perform...We fully accept the child's beingness just by our own receptive beingness.  We are telling the child that we are really there and aware.

To read more about Wants Nothing time, check out...

Choosing Wants Nothing Time; Choose your Own Journey

Emptying our Minds in Order to be More Present with Babies; Regarding Baby

Magda's Gift to Grown-ups; Janet Lansbury

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Be Strong and Cry

The week my husband's step father, Papa Bill, passed away was full of confusion and loss.  My husband's family came together to prepare for next steps.  When I asked my sister-in-law, how my niece (age 8) and nephew (age 10), took the news she told me they hardly responded.

Throughout the week, I took advantage of the down time I shared with my niece and nephew.  We played games, chatted about school, and made-up jokes. Occasionally, we talked about Papa Bill.  We all agreed we were sad, but nobody in the house was acting like it.

My niece confided, "You know, it's like it's not even real.  Like he's still here and nothing happened."    

Finally, the funeral day arrived.  We dressed-up to bid Papa Bill a formal farewell.  My sister-in-law and I, along with my 4-month old daughter, entered the funeral parlor with my niece and nephew. We gravitated towards the slide show chronicling Papa Bill's life.   I began to feel the swelling lump in the back of my throat as the four of us stared at images of our beloved flashing across the screen. I told myself, "Be strong Mary Sue, be strong for the children." 

I swallowed the lump.  

We stood hypnotized by the slide show with blank faces and I reworded my thoughts.  

"Be strong Mary Sue and cry."

In that moment, being strong meant having the courage to let the tears roll.  I wanted my niece and nephew to know that it was okay to cry, that they were safe crying here and now with their family.  The only way to send that message was to let my guard down and give myself permission to expose my own vulnerable feelings.  Through blurry and watery eyes, I noticed their faces streaked with tears.   

Thankfully nobody felt compelled to say...

  • It's okay!
  • No need to cry, he's in a better place. 
  • Let's celebrate his life, focus on the good times.  

At one point, visitors asked if we were waiting in line to offer our condolences. 

My sister-in-law responded, "No, we are just standing here, crying." 

Without shame or reason to hide, we exposed our grief. 

As parents, it's common to hide our grief so that our children do not think we are weak, or even worse, human.  

Through this experience, I rewired my definition of strength and realized that in this moment, being strong meant accepting my truth and allowing the lump in the back of my throat to surface and dissolve into tears.  Tears that may someday help my daughter navigate the complex and tender feelings of grief.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Practice What You Promise

This post is an extension of, The Benefits of Allowing your Baby to Struggle.  Through observing my daughter, El, I discovered the feelings I projected onto her experiences were interrupting her play and process. The following promises emerged as a guide, so I can better support my daughter as she discovers her potential and navigates her world. 

Making promises is easy, keeping promises takes practice. 

Our playtime started in the usual manner; I laid El down on her back with a few simple toys scattered around her.

I promise to believe you are capable.

El ignored the toys that were closest to her and began to take interest in the one toy I placed at a challenging distance. In this case it was a bright yellow jar lid. She reached, reached, and reached some more. Straining her body and arching her back, she crossed her midline with both arms and legs until she almost flopped over on her belly. After her first attempt she stopped, looked at me, cried out and then paused. At this point I began to sweat.

I’m the one who put the jar lid so far away in the first place!
I can fix this!
It doesn’t have to be this way!
It’s my fault she’s struggling!

I promise to give you permission to fail.

But instead I did nothing. I acknowledged her frustrations and continued to observe. I watched in suspense as her fingers grazed the jar lid, pushing it further away.

How long should I allow this to go on?

I promise to accept you fully, as is.

Periodically she looked at me, red-faced and crying, and then suddenly turned back, focused on her chosen task. I learned my daughter is persistent.

 I promise to give you time to succeed. 

Then something happened. She switched strategies. She began pulling the blanket
the lid was sitting on. With a few gentle tugs, the lid moved closer. She picked it up, waved it around and smiled at me.

I smiled back and said, “You did it!”

Phew, she did it.

Anxiety was replaced with the calm of relief and we were both giddy with delight. There are times throughout every day I give into temptation and fall back into my old habits of avoiding the tough feelings that accompany struggle. However, when I swoop in and ensure success, the experience is never as satisfying, engaging or interesting for either of us.

I promise to TRUST your process.

Each time she plays, I have the opportunity to practice resisting the urge to fix, rescue and remedy, and in return I am reminded that the value is in the process, not the prize. 


Monday, March 31, 2014

The Benefits of Allowing Babies to Struggle via The Natural Parents Network

For those of you who do not follow Hand in Play on Facebook, I didn't want you to miss out on a Hand in Play essay that the Natural Parents Network so graciously posted on their site. 

I plan on posting a follow up essay in the next couple of days so stay tuned.  

The Benefits of Allowing Babies to Struggle

Friday, March 28, 2014

Beyond the Boogie

I'm lying next to my 7month-old daughter as she plays.  She picks up a book and studies it, rolls onto her side and smiles at me, then drops the book and grabs both feet. She tucks the tips of her toes into her mouth. 

However, the only thing I see is a boogie happily lodged in her nose.  It doesn't seem to be bothering her, but it is bothering me, immensely. 
She looks at me and says, "dadadada baba?" 

In this moment, I cannot appreciate her sweet, melodic voice. 

All I hear is the boogie. 
All I think about is the boogie.  
Maybe I can get that boogie right now? 
If I'm fast, she won't even realize what I'm doing! 

In the meantime, I notice the dried avocado from lunch smeared on the side of her face.  I decide to give her ears a quick check for wax.

At this point, I have lost sight of my bright-eyed daughter who is playing and choosing to engage with me.  I am distracted by these small imperfections and desire to fix them ASAP.  This is evidence that the motherly instinct to constantly groom my child can easily become an overpowering distraction.  

Changing the lens in which I view my loved ones is the work that lies ahead of me.  By reigning in my critical eye, I keep myself from interrupting moments that matter with things that do not. With practice, I am one step closer to becoming the mother that always...

  • lights up when her child enters the room, instead of assessing attire and state of hair.    
  • listens with her whole heart, instead of correcting pronunciations. 
  • looks past the arbitrary imperfections to recognize that her child is perfect, boogies and all.

But who's going to get those boogies!?  

Instead of sporting my tunnel vision goggles to execute a drive-by nose picking, wax mining, and face wiping, I plan on giving future care practices their own time and space, out of respect for my daughter and her body.   

And from now on...

it's going to take a lot more then a boogie to distract me from sharing special moments, with those I love the most. 

To read more about grasping moments that matter check out Hands Free Mama